Axel Vervoordt Gallery is pleased to present the complete cycle of paintings created in 1999 showing the room installation of white constructions, which are elements from the last proposed unfinished exhibition by Kabakov avatar and invented character Charles Rosenthal.
Conceived as part of the large body of works within the oeuvre, The Alternative History Of Art – The Unfinished Paintings Of Charles Rosenthal / Room No. 6, the exhibition is part of a collected, invented revisionist history given to us as a way of reading the Kabakovs’ complex imagination that rewrote art history from the end of the last century through to the end of Stalin, as a parable.
These reductive, minimalist structures fill the space like works of sculpture, and whether the history of their creation is known, the impact, the pale calmness of their order offers the viewer the opportunity to contemplate time, emptiness, presence, and absence in a way that the Kabakovs singularly understand. This subject is central to all of this work, but it’s presented here without subterfuge. It exposes the core belief in art as a primary experience and the beating heart of this aesthetic vision. At the time Ilya Kabakov began to envisage his Alternative History of Art, he was exiled from Russia for a little more than a decade.
As Jean Hubert Martin wrote in his book on the Kabakov’s exhibition at the Grand Palais in 2014, Monumenta, the period between 1998—2004 was a moment when Ilya Kabakov was plagued with ideas about the failure of art. There are of course many good reasons he should be in such a morass. But it led to the creation of a sublime body of work that presents a fantasy history of art, conceived as if he could re-write his own life history into an idealised version for happier consumption. We learn through reading The Alternative History of Art, that artist Charles Rosenthal died in 1933 (the year the real artist Ilya Kabakov was born), so the beginning of this imaginary narrative presents something hovering between an idea of cultural reincarnation, a spiritual transfer of the ideas—and the embodied soul of Rosenthal streaming into Kabakov. He then discovers the paintings of the late Charles Rosenthal and imagines him as an ideal professor who would have—if he had been very lucky—channelled ghosts and traditions of late-Cezanne and Malevich to find a balance between the poles of these aesthetic positions.
This is fiction of course. But to keep the narrative alive, the real artist also invented a clone of himself as the protégé of this beloved teacher Charles Rosenthal—a revered teacher he never actually had. Subsequently, he then invented an ideal student for himself in the form of Spivak, a sentimental young artist who refused to embrace the colourful modern world of late-Communism and instead preferred partial glimpses in sepia tones, re-telling party positions indoctrinating the viewer into inflated visions of everyday Communist life riddled with pleasure, laughter, labour, and heroism—which he so wanted to believe. It’s important to realise that for each of these three artists, Kabakov creates written biographies and texts, as well as paints complete bodies of work as if to say, 'Here, this is art history, do you see any difference at all with what you already know?' Perhaps this was premature intuition of how fake information and fake culture could very easily surround us, taking the place of the real, or presenting very early the dangerous way totalitarianism constructs its own view of reality.
For the exhibition at Axel Vervoordt Gallery’s Kanaal location, viewers are presented with the moment when Charles Rosenthal’s career is at a close. In fact, the real Ilya Kabakov deliberately cuts it short. This installation, Room No. 6, becomes the last work of his life; what we see are frames for canvasses themselves waiting to be painted, as well as those that are filled with the thin pencil drawings of scenes from Soviet life that filled earlier Rosenthal works with a kind of folkloric kindness and pride. What is it Kabakov wants us to see here, that all these years later reminds us clearly of the efforts our art world has made to counter narrative with minimalism?
Whether it is Malevich or Donald Judd, the desire to take image away, or perhaps to thinly disguise the void with its intention rather than its fruition—this leaves the viewer in a far more complex space. This tension between reality and the experience of spirit and mind freed of cultural overlay is Kabakov’s genius. When the state and the way it structures everyday reality gives way to the energies themselves that make an artist’s world creative and fruitful—what appears does not look like anything familiar. It becomes an awkward beauty built on the rigorous omission of desires. On the contrary, it takes us someplace new and different. It stops us in our tracks. We are asked to pause, reflect, and breathe this new reality as if it were ether.
Whether you know that Kabakov made-up a heart-felt diary entry by the imaginary Charles Rosenthal or not, the experience of these works is fresher today than when they were made two decades ago:
'I decided to make a large group of paintings and arrange them together as a unified whole… I don’t know whether I’ll manage to find an appropriate dwelling for such an arrangement that I have conceived. The materials that I gathered for such an integrated exhibit, the first of its kind, are ready, and I think everything will be finished by the spring of next year.'
(Excerpt from the diary of Charles Rosenthal, March 18, 1933)
Ilya Kabakov decides that Charles Rosenthal would have to be killed prematurely in a car accident before finishing these works. It is 1933, the year of his own actual birth. But he shows them anyway—that is Ilya Kabakov the real artist decides to present them. For this reason, they become a clue to the big questions Ilya was pondering at that time, via the fictional character of Rosenthal. Keep in mind that Kabakov’s day job in Moscow during his career pre-1986 was illustrating children’s books. We know that characters in children’s books are used to make reality seemingly understandable to the young, when in fact we certainly all know as adults that life is rarely so.
The artist seems to want to reassure us, maybe in the same way Malevich put his famous Black Square in the corner high in the drawing room wall where everyone at the time expected to see the icon painting of Christ. Instead of Christ, there was the Black Square. Here, too, Kabakov offers the white canvas like a monochrome daring us to look differently at something we think we know. This powerful and brilliant, austere and musical body of complete work has only been shown three times: first, in 1999, at the Mito Museum in Mito, Japan; secondly, in 2004, in Cleveland, USA when The Alternative History of Art took over the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland. In 2008, the Alternative History of Art was shown in its entirety at The Garage, Moscow. The installation has been shown partially at the Städel Museum Frankfurt am Main, and at Kunstmuseum Bern, both in 2000.
This exhibition at Kanaal is the first time a European audience will have the opportunity to experience the complete iconic installation of works, a series of triptychs and individual paintings by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov.
Text by Jill Silverman van Coenegrachts, curator. Courtesy Axel Vervoordt Gallery.